'Predatory' insurer used photo of young cancer patient in advertising without permission

10:16 am on 17 February 2024

By Amy Ridout of Stuff

Sarah Kerby plans to file a claim with the Disputes Tribunal after insurance company Risk Direct used a photo of her and her son, Willy, without permission.

Photo: Stuff / Supplied

An insurance company that used an image of a boy with cancer without permission has been called "predatory" by his mother.

Nelson woman Sarah Kerby said a message from someone who had followed her son Willy's journey led her to Risk Direct's Facebook page.

There, she saw a short video featuring an image of her and her son, Willy, that was a screenshot taken from a 2023 Woman's Day article.

The video, narrated by Steve Munro from Risk Direct, also displayed other images from articles about children and families living with serious illness.

Steve Munro of Risk Direct says he chose the image to raise awareness of the vulnerabilities of New Zealand’s public health system.

Photo: Screenshot / Supplied

Kerby was horrified. "I felt so yuck ... thinking about how someone used my son's cancer story to try and make a profit," she said.

"It's predatory; an unbelievable feeling that someone would do that to you."

Kerby reported the video to Facebook and emailed the company. "I was really angry. [I said], 'Can you take this down and apologise to me and other families?'"

Munro's reply was brief, telling Kerby he had taken the video down.

"If there had been an apology, I would've dropped it," Kerby said.

But there wasn't, so Kerby is following up with the Financial Markets Authority, the government body that regulates insurance agents, and plans to file a claim with the Disputes Tribunal for $1000.

Willy in 2022, shortly after his neuroblastoma diagnosis.

Photo: John Kirk Anderson / Stuff

If she is successful with her claim, Kerby will donate the money to the Child Cancer Foundation, whose work she had highlighted in the original Woman's Day article.

Willy's neuroblastoma diagnosis two years ago was a shock to the family, whose lives were upended as the little boy endured gruelling cancer treatment in Christchurch and Auckland.

Now six years old, Willy has been cancer-free for six months and doing well, Kerby said.

Through her charity work, advocacy, and communications support role for MP Rachel Boyack, Kerby is a familiar face in Nelson.

"I don't want people to think I'm endorsing this product," she said.

Munro, whose job title is risk services director, said the image was used to "underscore vulnerabilities" within the health system.

"Particularly those areas of health services not covered by Pharmac and the impact these gaps can have on families, especially children. Sarah's case demonstrates this vulnerability, and we used her image thinking it was in the public domain and the public interest to do so."

Munro had acted swiftly when Kerby got in touch, removing the image within two hours, he said.

"We trust this explains the matter, and in the event that Sarah has any residual concerns, we apologise for any offence caused."

A second video featuring other families was removed after Stuff contacted Munro.

One featured Adrienne Smithson, an Auckland woman who spoke to The New Zealand Herald last year about her struggle to raise more than $100,000 to treat advanced bowel cancer.

"It's a personal family photo, which I gave permission to the Herald to use. But my expectation was not that it would be used by others for their own commercial gain without our permission," Smithson said.

Munro had also posted about her story on his LinkedIn page, though he didn't use her photo, she said.

"At the least, it lacks courtesy; at worst it feels ethically dodgy."

Advertising Standards Authority chief executive Hilary Souter said she was unable to weigh in on the advertisement, as it hadn't been assessed through the authority's complaints process.

Stuff checked with Are Media, which owns Woman's Day.

The magazine's editor, Sebastian van der Zwan, said: "In [Kerby's] case, the photos were supplied to us and Are Media doesn't hold the copyright.

"However, if these pictures were Are Media property and used without permission in advertising, we would get our lawyers onto it."

- This story was first published by Stuff.

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